Hurricane Laura is no joke. The U.S. National Hurricane Centre isn’t holding back on its warnings, saying the storm will bring “unsurvivable storm surge” to the Gulf Coast. This is the weather of nightmares, and it’s less than 12 hours away from making landfall.
Though Laura threatens communities up and down the Gulf Coast, one city, in particular, has emergency management experts nervously biting their nails. That’s Port Arthur, Texas. A low-income city of just over 54,000 people, Port Arthur is largely home to Black and Latinx families, nearly 23 per cent of whom are immigrants. They’re surrounded by oil and gas infrastructure, including the continent’s largest oil refinery: Motiva’s Port Arthur Refinery. Here, 630,000 barrels of oil are processed on any given day, and other refineries dot the landscape as well, adding to that total.
The siting of the Motiva refinery, which shut down Tuesday ahead of the storm, next to the homes of Black and brown children is no coincidence. It’s no coincidence, either, that it sits in a community with an above-average poverty rate. The legacy of environmental racism runs deep here, and Laura could add to it.
That includes a recent shock from Hurricane Harvey, which inundated the area with rain in 2017. From the federal to the local level, officials have failed to give the community the resources it needs to rebuild since that disaster shook their world. Survivors are now suing state and federal officials for what they call a discriminatory recovery process. Unfortunately, these court proceedings will do little to help the community in the immediate moment. Port Arthur currently sits in the eye of Hurricane Laura. The city is under a mandatory evacuation order.
Gizmodo spoke to self-professed disasterologist Samantha Montano, an assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy who has studied Texas flooding for nearly a decade, to hear why things have gone so wrong in this community. More importantly, we talked about what needs to change to make sure this suffering ends.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and grammar.
Gizmodo: Let’s start with the big picture view of what’s happening down South right now. What about Hurricane Laura, more generally, worries you?
Samantha Montano: Well, I think from a meteorological standpoint, something concerning about Laura is the intensification of the storm so soon to when it’ll be making landfall. There’s been a lot of uncertainty in the track and the intensity of the storm over the past several days. So folks may have not really had as much lead time as they have with other hurricanes that have moved more slowly.
Gizmodo: And the impact there is on evacuation if they don’t have that lead time.
Montano: Yeah, exactly. Evacuation efforts. Also, keep in mind, evacuating coastal Texas and Louisiana is pretty complicated. Because there is uncertainty in the track, you run the risk of ordering an evacuation and then having people evacuating inland to where that hurricane ends up. We’ve seen this happen in the past before. For example, Hurricane Gustav in Louisiana. They evacuated the city of New Orleans. A lot of people went to Baton Rouge, and then they ended up getting the majority of impact there.
Gizmodo: When you think of Port Arthur, in particular, why is this a community people should be keeping their eyes on as they watch the storm?
Montano: Port Arthur is right along the coast. They’re in a very physically vulnerable area because of that proximity. It looks like Port Arthur is going to bear the brunt of the actual impacts from Laura. Then in addition to that, Port Arthur has these intersecting vulnerabilities. It’s a community that has high rates of poverty. It’s a community that has been impacted by the pandemic. Unemployment is an issue there right now, so people may not have the resources that are needed to evacuate.
Also, they were impacted severely from Hurricane Harvey just a few years ago. Eighty per cent of housing in Port Arthur was damaged by Harvey. There were really harrowing flood rescues in the midst of Harvey, and the recovery process from Harvey has been exceptionally slow. So many people are kind of starting this storm not having yet recovered from Harvey — and are also facing impacts from the pandemic.
Gizmodo: From the thread that you posted on Twitter, it seems that recovery is a recurring issue here, right? Harvey wasn’t the beginning of this journey for some residents in Port Arthur.
Montano: Yeah, they have been affected by a number of different storms. Hurricane Ike is one that is being brought up because of some similarities with how Laura is looking. In Port Arthur — but also communities throughout east Texas like Houston, Harris County, and surrounding counties — there has been just flood after flood the past few years. 2015 Memorial Day Flood. You have Tax Day Flood and another flood in June 2016. Then you have Harvey on top of that. So what we’re seeing in these communities, you get trapped in this cycle of recovery. People can’t recover from the last flood before the next one comes.
Gizmodo: Why is this such an issue? Why is recovery something that doesn’t happen in time? Is it just because of how quickly these events are following one another? What’s behind this delay?
Montano: There’s a couple of factors, but two major things here. One is, yes, when you are flooding once a year — twice a year in some cases — there just isn’t time to rebuild completely before it floods again. But in addition, there is an issue with how the U.S. approaches recovery for individuals and households. This is not at all a problem unique to Texas.
We see across the country that individuals who experience significant impacts to their homes from various types of disasters, not just flooding, are thrown into this really complex and very often inadequate governmental system of aid where governments fall short in meeting their needs, which is almost always the case. They are reliant on their own personal resources, which is particularly difficult for people, like many in Port Arthur, who are already living in poverty. When they don’t have resources to recover on their own, then they’re reliant on nonprofit organisations to come in and help. They do really great work in many cases, but they also don’t have the capacity to meet all of the needs all across the country.
So when we think about the repetitive flooding in east Texas, it’s not only the needs in east Texas that this system is trying to meet. It’s also the needs across the country. It’s everybody who’s recovering in Puerto Rico. It is everybody who’s still recovering in New Orleans from Katrina. It’s everybody in New York, in New Jersey, recovering from Sandy. It’s everybody in California dealing with the wildfires. It’s Iowa, dealing with the effects of the derecho from a couple of weeks ago. The system as a whole is strained, and the approach that we’re taking has long been inadequate. Because these disasters are happening more regularly and we’re seeing increased impacts and needs across the country, I think it is becoming more visible how inadequate this approach is.
Gizmodo: My understanding is that with Port Arthur, the situation becomes even more drastic due to the oil and gas infrastructure in the city. How does that infrastructure exacerbate the situation that unfolds when a hurricane hits?
Montano: Port Arthur has the largest oil refinery in the country, and there have long been community activists working on the public health concerns related to having so many people work at that refinery and living in close proximity to that refinery. It’s a situation where we see not only the consequences of climate change in this increasing flooding, but we also see the cause of climate change sitting right there, as well.
People in Port Arthur are not new to managing these multiple crises at the same time. I think every time there’s flooding that interacts with the refinery, there’s the potential for damage to that refinery then having rippling repercussions for that community. Not only in terms of extensive physical impacts from the flooding but also another wave of job losses as the refinery has to shut down or rebuild after any storm that comes through.
Gizmodo: So you’re saying that there’s the health impact of potentially being exposed to whatever the refinery may be putting into the water if it floods, but also the economic impact if it gets damaged enough where people can no longer work there because it’s a source of employment?
Gizmodo: We talked about this before in a previous story of mine, but what about the pandemic? How is this further complicating efforts for Port Arthur?
Montano: There is a couple of ways of thinking about this. There are the effects of the pandemic itself on people. People have lost their jobs, have lost income that they would usually have to be able to spend on buying boards for their windows, or to pay for gas to evacuate, pay for a hotel room to go stay in. So there is already a loss of economic resources among individuals, presumably directly related to the pandemic. But then also there’s all of the logistics and the city-wide response to the hurricane that is affected by the pandemic.
Dating back to June, city officials in Port Arthur have been talking about the need to modify their hurricane plans to account for the pandemic. So far, I’ve seen reporting locally saying that there are busses available for people who can’t afford to evacuate and they are limiting the number of people on a school bus to 15 so that you can still keep a distance while you’re evacuating. You can look at pictures of people who are showing up to get on a bus, and everyone’s wearing masks. So you can definitely see where people are trying to distance and have PPE where they’re able to, but it does change the process that people are used to when they go to evacuate. It does extend the amount of time and effort and resources that are needed to actually use do those evacuations.
Gizmodo: So the time, resources, and effort spent on the pandemic that otherwise would have been time and resources and effort spent on the hurricane response itself?
Gizmodo: Who would you say is at fault, if anyone, for whatever happens tonight when Hurricane Laura makes landfall?
Montano: Hahah. I don’t know how to answer that. I don’t know that it is any one person’s fault. I think that this is a completely predictable scenario. Having a strong hurricane hit the Gulf Coast in the middle of an active hurricane season is expected. Having a hurricane occur during a pandemic is also a scenario that emergency managers have long considered a possibility. So where I think potentially fault for inadequate responses lays is in a lack of preparedness. That could be at the federal level, the state level, and the local level.
It’s not just ever one decision that leads to a potential disaster like this happening. It is a long history of policy decisions. It is a long history of not investing in preparedness. It is a long history of not building the capacity of our emergency management systems. It’s a long history of not addressing the underlying social inequalities in our communities that are leading to these impacts. Then also climate change as well.
Gizmodo: So when we think of ways to be done or for frontline communities like Port Arthur that will keep getting hit every couple of years or so by devastating hurricanes in our warming climate, what does it look like? What needs to be done? What needs to change in order to prevent this from happening as we move forward?
Montano: Nationally, we need comprehensive emergency management reform. We have seen after Katrina, after Maria, after even smaller disasters as well, that the approach that we’re taking to managing disasters is not sufficient to meet people’s needs across the country. We cannot just keep being reactive to every disaster that happens. We need to be doing more to prepare, and we need to be doing more hazard mitigation to actually try to prevent these disasters from happening in the first place. A really obvious way of having conversations about the type of emergency management reform that we need is by integrating that into broader climate change conversations.
Many of these disasters that happen across the country do have a link to climate change, but climate change is not the only reason for them. Connecting those two conversations is really critical as we move forward.